One of the Best Stately Homes in London

Sometimes when we want to explore a castle or a house, we have to travel on narrow rural roads; other times we hop on the underground…

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Syon House is not just another stately home. This was the “country house” of the Percy family, one of the most important families in medieval Britain. Their ancestral home is the famous Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, which you might recognise as Hogwarts school of magic from the first two films of the Harry Potter series. The Percys had a house in London as well, but they used Syon House as a weekend retreat from the busy city, it being a great location from which to plot their cunning strategies during the Tudor period.

The name Syon derives from a monastery that once stood in this estate. It was built in the days of Henry V, but the monks were not keen on the place and they moved to the north side of the river. The land on the south side remained under the ownership of the abbey until the reformation of Henry VIII. The head of the abbey refused to accept the supremacy of the king and as you can imagine, the king was not pleased. The head of the abbey was executed. 

After the dissolution of the monasteries, Syon House changed hands. It was a desirable piece of property and it was owned by the most powerful man in the land. It played a significant role in some of the most important events of the period, most famously the very short reign of Lady Jane Grey, the forgotten queen of England ( it is hard to leave a legacy when your reign lasts only nine days). Great people in this period of time tended to end up executed, after which their estates were taken by the courts and given to new owners. This ended in 1594 when Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, purchased Syon House.

Henry Percy was the son of the earl who revolted against Queen Elizabeth in what we call the,’’ Rising of the North”. That earl ended up dead ( “officially” he took his own life) in the Tower of London. The 9th Earl had managed to build the Percys back as a great family and his love of science, mainly for alchemistry, gained him the nickname the “Wizarding Earl”. Unfortunately for him, he did not have much time to enjoy this house, because like his father, he was also sent to the Tower of London after the gunpowder plot of 1605. Henry’s nephew, Thomas, was one of the co-conspirators who was also executed. They had had dinner together the day before the plot and it seemed a bit suspicious. Although they did not have any proof, he still spent 16 years in the Tower, however, as jails go, it was a fairly comfortable one.

The Wizarding Earl was not the most interesting character to feature in Syon House’s story during this period: his daughter, Lucy, was far more intriguing. She was a beautiful and cunning woman and during the days of the English Civil War, she became a spy and a mistress. Ultimately, she became the inspiration for the femme fatale character known as Milady de Winter from the famous novel, “The Three Musketeers”. It was Lucy’s husband who finally managed to negotiate the release of her father from the Tower.

During the Civil War itself, Syon House was the place where a couple of the children of King Charles I lived. After Charles was caught and imprisoned, he was allowed to visit them before his execution. The visit was commemorated in a dramatic painting that you can still see hung in one of the staterooms of Syon House.

The Percy male line ended in 1670 with the death of the 11th Earl and the family lost the earldom for almost a century. The Earl’s only daughter and heiress, Elizabeth, married the Duke of Somerset and, unbelievably, at the tender age of 15, this was her third marriage! If you are interested in finding out about more the virgin widow, you can find her history in my Syon House stories.

A few generations later, the granddaughter of Elizabeth, Elizabeth Seymour, married an ambitious politician named Hugh Smithson. Smithson managed to grant a license to change his name to Percy and the dynasty was revived. Later, he also managed to be elevated to the Dukedom of Northumberland. During this period, it was becoming clear that old Syon house was not grand enough for such a power couple, so it was time for some modernisation. To get the works done, the couple hired the most fashionable names of the time in architecture and landscaping: Robert Adam for the house and Lancelot “Capability Brown” for the gardens ( Capability would later also work for the Duke and Duchess at Alnwick Castle).

Since the Duke did not want to change the house’s exterior, Adam had to focus on the interior and the result is magnificent. From the inside, Syon house is definitely one of the most impressive houses I have had the pleasure to visit.

Syon House hosted royalty once again during the beginning of the 19th century when the 3rd Duchess Charlotte Florentia became the governess of Princess Victoria. This role meant that the duchess had to prepare Victoria for life as a queen. Unlike previous royal offspring who had lived here, Victoria really enjoyed her time at Syon, mainly because the duchess did not permit Victoria’s mother to sleep in the same room as her daughter as she had done at Kensington Palace. And so for the young princess, being at Syon House was also a welcome break from her controlling mother. Victoria’s room and the bed can still be seen in the house today

Syon House is still the home of the 12th Duke of Northumberland. It is open for the public and it is associated with the HHA.

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syonIf Only We Could Join a Guided Tour

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We visited Syon house during a rainy August day. It was the first day of rain after a few weeks of heaving sun meaning that the landscape around the house, like most of the country, was parched and yellow. When we arrived at the house, we learned that guided tours are available only on Wednesday. It was Thursday and so we had to settle for a printed tour and hope to extract more information from the guides who were scattered around the house ( which in this case were the same guides who actually carry out the tours).

Whilst from the outside Syon House does not look particularly impressive, your perception of the place changes immediately once you are inside. The 1st Duke who commissioned the work did not want to change anything from the outside and so the Elizabethan frame was left untouched. But when you have architects such as Robert Adam (who also designed the nearby Osterley Park, and Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath)  working on a project, you can expect to see impressive results. In the case of Syon, this becomes immediately apparent as you enter into the entrance hall.

Country houses are scattered throughout the United Kingdom, but there are not enough of them in my opinion in London, and Syon House definitely does the trick: it is a great combination of beautiful artefacts, lavish decoration and rich history. This house played an extremely important role during Tudor and Stuart times and I was happy to discover that all the guides in the rooms could explain these stories well. The printed guide material was also useful. If you want to dip your toes a bit further into the history, there is also a small exhibition in the basement dedicated to the period when the area of Syon House belonged to the Syon Monastery.

Once we had finished exploring the house, it was time to see its grounds. The most famous image of the house actually comes from the grand conservatory which is only a few minutes walk from the house. My son and daughter enjoyed exploring the fruit trees and vegetable gardens here, but as it was raining, we were unable to walk in much more of the gardens. Once you have finished delving into the house and grounds, the nearest location for a coffee break is to be found in the neighbouring garden centre. Always an important piece of information to know, in my opinion.

In conclusion, Syon House is a historical gem, but not an obvious one upon first glance at the outside. To those who are fascinated by the wives of Henry VIII or by Lady Jane Grey, the nine days queen, it is an absolute joy. Especially when the guides in the room are so knowledgeable and full of interesting stories. Looking around at the competition, this house should be on the itinerary to see of both tourists and residents alike. The fact that you can visit it using public transport should also add to its appeal, at least in my book. The one problem I had with the house was the lack of facilities and attractions for children, but I can only assume that being so close to the centre of London, it will still be an attractive place to visit for a lot of people. If the house was a restaurant, it would earn its place in the Michelin guide thanks to its rich interior and amazing history and it would receive one star.

Syon House is still lived in by the Duke of Northumberland and so there is a slight chance that by visiting it, you might meet a real duke ( we did not).

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